July 11, 2021 10:31:12 am
Italy, in the European Championship, has scored 12 goals and conceded three. On the defensive end, they continue to be as stingy as before but the offense is where they have displayed some well-earned character growth, scoring more goals than they did in the previous two editions of the Euros. As Roberto Mancini’s team sets foot on Wembley today against England for the Euro 2020 trophy, it will be this growth that is set to be put to test.
It started with disaster
The Italian national team in 2018 was in disarray. It was shocking for Italy – a four-time World Champion – to not qualify for the one tournament that has cemented their country’s legacy as one of the elites in world football.
It was under the veil of this shame that Roberto Mancini took charge in 2018 – at a time when a reboot was necessary and the top clubs in the Serie A were increasingly unable to find and shape younger talent.
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A re-shaping of who the Italian football team are
Over three years later, Mancini has successfully masterminded the return of the Italian team to the upper echelons of Europe. This team is unlike any of their preceding Rossoneri squads. They play a higher defensive line and rely on small, pacey wingers to provide width and numbers in attack. An attack-minded Italy may have been an oxymoron until now but the Euros have shown that this is now the way they play.
It has come with a healthy dose of belief as well. Centre-back Giorgio Chiellini described Mancini’s belief and how it permeated the team when he said, “At the beginning, when he told us to have in our minds the idea of winning the Euro, we thought he was crazy; instead, during these years he has created a team which is now on the brink of doing that.
“And as he has repeated to us after every match, ‘one centimetre at a time’, and now there is only the last centimetre left,” said Chiellini to UEFA.com.
How Mancini has taken them to the top
To reach that last centimetre, Italy have had to buy into Mancini’s ways and he himself has had to reinvent his managerial core. Gone is the moniker of a former striker who sets his team like a defender would. This Mancini is no longer the Manchester City manager who once famously said “I like 1–0 wins. When you don’t concede a goal and you have players like Edin Džeko, Carlos Tevez or David Silva, you win 90%. I prefer we are boring for two to three matches and we win 1–0.”
Italy has been entertaining and Italy has been winning. Their qualification to the Euros is the stuff of legends. Currently the national team is on a 33-game unbeaten streak (27 wins and six draws) and scored a record 37 goals in 10 games in the qualification stages.
For these Euros, Mancini’s overall Italian squad is also an honest opinion on the country’s football setup at the moment. There are more players from Sassuolo, Atalanta, Lazio in the national setup than there are players from Milan. Nicolo Zaniolo and Sandro Tonali were handed national team debuts before they made their Serie A debuts. 25 of the 26-man squad has seen playing minutes on the pitch at these Euros. By utilising Italian talent from the core, instilling belief in the national squad and undergoing a cultural reset, Mancini has transformed Italy to a modern-day football team that continues to uphold its traditional bastion of defending.
Does the old Italy remain?
Yes, and mostly in the form of Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Veterans in Italian ranks with 219 games played together, the centre-back pairing continues to age like fine wine and these Euros have been their masterpiece.
A complete shutdown of Romelu Lukaku when Italy beat Belgium, was a reminder of what happens when teams try to directly take on the two. The Welsh failed in mounting any sort of offensive during the group stages. Only Spain was able to threaten the Italian centre-backs at certain moments but in true Italian fashion, they somehow managed to wriggle themselves out of a tough spot and beat the Spaniard in a penalty shootout in the semis.
The strengths of this Italian side
Other than the Chiellini-Bonucci pairing, Italy massively relies on their midfield three. Marco Verratti’s return has coincided with Mancini sticking to him, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella at the middle of the park.
But even within these three, Jorginho, a Brazil-born midfielder with Pirlo-like sensibilities, continues to be the engine of the national team. In the semi-finals, when Italy were being made to chase a ball by Spain for most of the game, it was Jorginho who was a threat to the Iberians every time he had a hold of the ball.
No player in the Italian squad, other than goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, has played as many minutes as Jorginho has. The Chelsea midfielder has been substituted only once – when a quarter of an hour was left against Wales.
Their weaknesses exposed by teams in Euro 2020
The very midfield that the Italians hold on to as one of their strengths, can very easily be exploited by England. Spain showed that a quick pressing system in the middle of the park can really upset the stomach of Mancini’s chosen XI. In certain matches, England have deployed Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips as two deep-lying midfielders that are capable of rotating possession but are also willing to run through walls when not in possession.
England also have an allay of riches at their attacking positions. Italy, for all their defensive prowess, are not going to enjoy Raheem Sterling running between the channels and taking on Chiellini and Bonucci. Gareth Southgate will also have the better bench, what with being able to call upon players like Jadon Sancho, who can run at Italian defenders late in the game. Italy are also without first-choice left back Leonardo Spinazzola, a player who was capable of making English wingers track back and defend and essentially alleviate the pressure on their centre-backs. Replacement Emerson Palmieri has spent a season on Chelsea’s bench and has started slowly but hit the bar against Spain during the semi-final.
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